The Mona Lisa’s famous smile — a woman thinking about herself smiling — may be the first appearance in art of modern ambivalence. The works of Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch genius of light, have a similar out-of-time quality. They seem to leap forward, from the middle of the 1600s, to a photographic embrace of the world as a voluptuous nexus of color and shadow.
In Girl With a Pearl Earring, Colin Firth, in long, flowing musketeer locks that bring out an erotic dynamism he hasn’t shown before, plays Vermeer quietly, with the intensity of the possessed, as if he were looking through people instead of at them. The movie, adapted from Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 novel and directed by Peter Webber, is the story of how Vermeer created a single painting, the rapturous ”Girl With a Pearl Earring,” and it brings off something that few dramas about artists do. It gets you to see the world through new — which is to say, old — eyes.
Scarlett Johansson is Griet, the 17-year-old maid who comes to live in the noisy, bourgeois, economically fractious Vermeer household, only to become the artist’s secret muse. Johansson, with a white cap covering her hair, appears to be nothing but milky skin, overripe lips, and shy, all-seeing orbs: an image of uninterrupted sensuality. The actress gives a nearly silent performance, yet the interplay on her face of fear, ignorance, curiosity, and sex is intensely dramatic. Griet’s connection to Vermeer hardly needs to be consummated. Everyone can see it, notably his wife (Essie Davis), who, for all her pettiness, might be the maid’s aging mirror image. The movie’s soap opera of jealousy and forbidden obsession is standard middlebrow fare, yet when Griet finally poses for that painting, the entire scenario is embedded in her one look, reaching out to us, as if from across the centuries.